Jack Baldwin’s first-half header was enough to move Sunderland second in League One as they were held to a 1-1 draw at home against Burton Albion.
The Black Cats move above Barnsley despite struggling against a confident Albion side who took the lead at the Stadium of Light courtesy of a Tom Flanagan own goal.
Injuries and fatigue appeared to catch up with the Black Cats who never looked in control against Nigel Clough’s team who created plenty of chances throughout.
Crucially Jack Ross’ men are still in pole-position to go up from League One leading Barnsley by a point having played a game less than the Tykes.
The first-effort of note came from in-form frontman, Charlie Wyke, who clipped the crossbar with his long-range header. Wyke did excellently to generate enough power from Dylan McGeouch’s speculative cross and worry Bradley Collins in the Burton goal.
Moments later Sunderland gave up a great chance. Marcus Harness turned Luke O’Nien inside out before setting up Liam Boyce six-yards out. Surprisingly the striker snatched at the chance, firing over from close-range.
Albion punished Sunderland on the break. McGeouch overran the ball carelessly in midfield, setting the visitors away on the counter. Harness raced down Sunderland’s right only to see his attempted cutback deflect straight in off Flanagan at the near post. Whilst the goal was fluky, Sunderland’s lack of intensity and defensive awareness was the sole reason Harness had space in the penalty area to start with.
Midway through the first-half Baldwin got the hosts level. Glancing in an out-swinging Grant Leadbitter corner.
The game remained relatively open and even after Sunderland’s leveler, but it was the hosts who had the next key chance, with Wyke somehow missing from point-blank range. The 26-year-old was free in the six yard-box after Burton failed to clear their lines, but Wyke’s powered effort was too close to Collins whose strong hand down low, stopped the ball dead.
Baldwin nearly scored Sunderland’s second own-goal of the night, completely misjudging his block on a Stephen Quinn cross from deep, mercifully the ball rolled just wide of the near post this time.
In first-half injury time Wyke came close again, failing to direct Bryan Oviedo’s brilliant cross on target. At full-stretch the target man could only volley wide at the near post.
More clumsy defending from Flanagan presented Burton with a great chance inside five minutes of the re-start. Harness played in Boyce by the penalty spot, the marksman slipped and his weak effort was chested away by McLaughlin.
The visitors had Sunderland on the ropes, but Flanagan went some way to redeeming himself when he cleared a Boyce effort off the line. Boyce easily rolled O’Nien, who recovered to partially block the Burton man’s shot, which allowed Flanagan to powerfully clear on the half-volley.
Burton continued to dominate the second-half with Jamie Allen the latest to test McLaughlin with a tame pot-shot after an impressive move from the away side.
It took 20 minutes for Sunderland to produce any quality attacking play in the second-half, but then Grant Leadbitter managed a moment of genius. His disguised lob put Wyke through on goal, who hit the crossbar on the half-volley.
With 15 minutes to go noise around the Stadium of Light increased with the home fans sensing a late winner, Leadbitter nearly rewarded them hitting the post with a low drive from 20-yards.
Appalling play from Flanagan and Baldwin defending on the counter put Harness through one-on-one, but McLaughlin denied him, racing out tackle the midfielder before he could get his shot off.
Baldwin did have the ball in the net in stoppage time, but his header was ruled out, for a foul committed on Collins who initially caught the corner, before dropping the ball amidst a melee in the six-yard box.
Ultimately Sunderland’s late surge wasn’t enough and they were forced to settle for a point in a game where they were far from their best and looked especially vulnerable defensively.
Jon McLaughlin, 7/10: Busier than he has been in recent weeks in League One fixtures, but the 31-year-old dealt with most things the lively Burton frontline threw at him.
Luke O’Nien, 5/10: Had some bright moments going forward, but not enough to counteract his deficiencies at the other end, struggled all night against Harness.
Tom Flanagan, 3/10: Nervy on the ball throughout, whether fatigued or uncomfortable against former teammates, he was dreadful.
Jack Baldwin, 5/10: His finish was brilliant, his passing was mixed and his defending clumsy, all in all not good enough.
Bryan Oviedo, 7/10: A touch of class at left-back, his defending was better than usual too.
Dylan McGeouch, 6/10: Started the game well, before making a costly blunder in the build-up to Burton’s opener, the midfielder came off injured before he could redeem himself.
Grant Leadbitter, 7/10: Provided yet another assist from a dead ball situation, the 33-year-old was guilty of too many wayward passes though.
Lewis Morgan, 6/10: Much better than Saturday, he was lively and willing to take on his man, which won the team several first-half corners.
George Honeyman, 6/10: Unable to create much on the right.
Will Grigg, 6/10: Ran tirelessly, but outside of a few bright touches he rarely troubled the Burton defence.
Charlie Wyke, 7/10: Picked up where he left off against Rochdale, winning most of his aerial duels and doing a great job of linking play with his teammates.
(SUB) Max Power, 6/10: Didn’t pull his weight defensively, but made up for it with tidy possession play.
(SUB) Kazaiah Sterling, 5/10: Didn’t take his half-chances to give Sunderland all three points.
(SUB) , Benji Kimpioka 6/10: Looked lively in limited minutes.
Man of the Match: Jon McLaughlin